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Breaking Down Mark Barron: The most savvy move of a pleasantly surprising Steelers Free Agency period

The Pittsburgh Steelers have been shockingly active in free agency, and Mark Barron might be the most savvy move they made.

NFL: Arizona Cardinals at Los Angeles Rams Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Like many of you, I entered the free agency period with modest expectations. I anticipated we’d sign a journeyman receiver to compete for reps following the Antonio Brown trade. And I figured we’d bring in a veteran competitor at corner to push the flailing Artie Burns. But with limited cap dollars to spend and teams like the Jets and Bills making lucrative contracts rain like it was Saturday night at the club, I didn’t expect much of a splash. The Steeler Way and all.

Consider me pleasantly surprised, then, with what we’ve managed to accomplish. Our first signing, Steven Nelson, is an actual #2 corner and represents a serious upgrade from Burns. Our second signing, wide receiver Donte Moncrief, is indeed a bit of a journeyman. But he has legitimate deep-ball ability and fills a serious void in our passing game. Two additions that address immediate needs. Not bad.

It’s our third and most recent signing, however, that really has me excited.

Many of you know the basics on Mark Barron by now. The 6’2-230 pound veteran signed a 2 year, $12 million deal last weekend on the heels of L.J. Fort’s departure. While those are by no means earth-shattering dollars, an average of $6 million per season isn’t chump change, either. The contract likely means the Steelers will give him the chance to earn plenty of playing time, either as a starter or in a variety of situational roles.

Since transitioning to linebacker from strong safety in 2017, Barron has recorded 145 tackles and 3 interceptions in 26 regular season games. He is coming off of a 2018 season in which Pro Football Focus gave him the lowest grade of his career. If you put a lot of stock into the PFF grades this will give you cause for concern. On the other hand, Barron played really well for the Rams in their post-season run, notching 22 tackles in three playoff games, including eight in the Super Bowl against New England.

Here’s a breakdown on Barron with some thoughts on why I’m so excited about adding him to our defense.

LATERAL QUICKNESS AT THE SECOND LEVEL

It’s no secret the Steelers have been lacking an inside linebacker who can run sideline-to-sideline since Ryan Shazier went down. Sean Spence, Jon Bostic and L.J. Fort have all been asked to fill that role to varying degrees. None have been able to do so adequately. Barron, a converted safety, is the most equipped to handle the job.

One of the reasons for Barron’s career-low PFF grade last season was an Achilles injury that forced him to miss four games and hindered his movement upon his return. At 230 pounds, quickness is the key to Barron’s success at inside linebacker. Thus, his play fell off as he worked his way back. Once healthy, however, Barron was one of the Rams’ best defenders in their Super Bowl run. RamsWire writer Cameron DaSilva had this to say about him in a piece that ran just prior to the contest:

“The Patriots’ relentless rushing attack will face its toughest test in Super Bowl LIII with the Rams up next. That would’ve sounded crazy to say three weeks ago, but Los Angeles’ run defense has been phenomenal since the postseason began. A big reason for that is the play of Mark Barron, who is peaking at the perfect time for the Rams. He stepped up in a big way the last two games, especially in the NFC championship against Alvin Kamara and Mark Ingram. He may be undersized, but his athleticism is a huge asset for the Rams. He has the speed and quickness of a safety, allowing him to change direction easily and get to the sideline faster than most linebackers.”

Barron’s range and ability to elude blocks to get to the football are evident in the following clip from that Championship game (Barron’s stat line: 9 tackles, 7 solo). Watch how quickly Barron (#26, left inside linebacker) recognizes the reach block from the guard and flies over top of it. He gets a great assist from Aaron Donald (#99), whose savvy tug of the guard’s jersey prevents him from getting to Barron. But Barron’s lateral movement is excellent, and he is athletic enough to redirect quickly when he recognizes a clear gap he can fill. With the edge sealed, running back Alvin Kamara has no choice but to cut up into that gap, where Barron meets him and makes a great solo tackle for a two yard gain.

I can’t overstate how difficult a play this is. It is hard enough beating the reach block of an uncovered lineman. Granted, Donald’s hold helps. But most backers would not have the speed to get lateral like Barron does. They would have to lose ground to gain ground, meaning they would have to arc their path to the football in order to get over top of the guard. Getting lateral is the fastest path to the ball. But by getting lateral, Barron has no angle to the ball-carrier, leaving himself vulnerable to a backside cut. Fortunately, Barron stops on a dime, redirects and fills the hole. Most inside backers are simply not athletic enough to make this play.

Here’s another one. The Rams are aligned in a 4-3 look with Barron as the Will backer to the bottom of the screen. LA is ahead 24-6 so the backers are loose and anticipating pass. Cleveland runs a draw play. Watch Barron close to the ball:

Barron is twelve yards from the running back and outside the left hash when the ball is handed off. He sprints across the field, splitting the blocks of the offensive tackle and the center, to make the tackle outside the right hash. This could have been a splash play for the Browns. Instead, it’s a mere seven yard gain. Barron makes the play with all-out effort and athleticism. He brings a gear to the linebacking corps that has been sorely lacking since Shazier’s departure.

TACKLING

One of the most exciting things about Barron is his tackling ability. Our linebackers coach in college used to yell, “Run to the ball and be in a bad mood when you get there!” That’s Mark Barron. Barron is a forceful tackler who brings all of his 230 pounds with him. It’s not just the violence with which he tackles that is exciting, however. It’s the fact that he manages to be violent and disciplined at once. Barron flies to the football but he is athletic enough to get in sound tackling position once he arrives there. He also subscribes to the seemingly antiquated notion of using his arms to wrap up a ball-carrier rather than trying to knock him down by ramming him with his shoulder. These old-school fundamentals are both refreshing and necessary given the fact the Steelers have not been the most sound tackling unit the past few seasons.

Here’s Barron applying the basics of Form Tackling 101 - attack the ball, wrap your arms, run your feet - to bring down Lions tight end Eric Ebron:

Here’s Barron using his quickness to beat a pulling guard and apply a great form tackle to Bucs running back Doug Martin:

And here’s an old one from Barron when he was at Alabama that I threw in just for fun because, well, when you run speed option with your quarterback this is what should happen:

PASS COVERAGE

Having a natural safety at the linebacker level is an obvious plus in passing situations. Barron’s instincts and technique work will be superior to those of any of the recent players to fill the weak side role. This includes Fort, who was an above average pass defender.

Watch Barron in the clip below, aligned on the far hash. It’s a 1st and 10 situation and the Cardinals, with a back in the backfield, can run or pass here. I point this out to highlight how quickly Barron recognizes pass (to be fair, it’s a pure pass read from the OL) and then gets into a DB backpedal. This is not something your typical ILB is capable of doing. Most ILBs will open to the nearest receiver, run to their drop and then attempt to find the football. This will force them to take their eyes off of the quarterback and render them incapable of anticipating a throw. Or, as the backer beside Barron is doing, they will backpedal, awkwardly, and fail to gain adequate depth. Barron’s ability to both gain depth and keep his eyes on the QB allow him to work underneath the throw here and make the interception.

In man coverage, Barron’s athleticism makes him adept at matching backs out of the backfield or carrying tight ends down the seam. I have seen some criticism of him as a man defender but quite frankly I can’t find the tape to validate the concerns. And although most at BTSC will flip a desk over at the mere suggestion of a linebacker matched up in coverage against a wide receiver, the fact that Keith Butler is returning as DC means we are likely to see, in some way, shape or form, this coverage scheme again. Having Barron at ILB is by no means perfect in this regard. But when offenses scheme to get wide receivers inside, likely as the tightest receiver to the ball in a Trips set, and the Steelers are forced by design to cover that player with a backer, having Barron there is a massive upgrade over Jon Bostic. It may not be the ideal situation. But it is clearly better than the previous reality.

CONCERNS

Size, obviously. The Rams were able to mask Barron being undersized because they had one of the best defensive fronts in football. They often kept blockers off of Barron, allowing him to run free to the ball. But when teams run right at him, or if they can get blockers on him while he is moving laterally, he can get washed out of the play. It’s not surprising, then, that offenses often employ heavy personnel groupings when he’s aligned inside to try to out-muscle him.

Here we see the Saints in an unbalanced 8-man line with an extra offensive tackle and two tight ends to the right of the center. The Rams stop the play for a short gain because they align to it soundly and their defensive front does not get moved. But watch Barron at the right inside backer position. The Saints’ inside zone scheme allows tackle Ryan Ramczyk to get his 315 pound body up on Barron. The mismatch is evident. Barron is unable to separate, gets driven back three yards and then tries to spin off of Ramczyk, causing linebacker coaches all over America to cringe.

This is the obvious flaw in having an undersized backer in a 3-4 scheme, especially one like ours that lacks a Casey Hampton-type nose who can consistently demand double teams. There simply aren’t enough defensive linemen to occupy all the opposing blockers, meaning the Mack and the Buck will inevitably have to take on and shed blocks.

The other concern I have with Barron involves his aggressiveness. The first GIF above that shows him flying to the football to stop Alvin Kamara on a wide zone run could also serve as a template for teams who want to use misdirection and play-action to exploit him. Much like Ryan Shazier early in his career, Barron can be easily fooled because he is so aggressive. This isn’t the worst problem in the world to have. It’s better to make teams beat you with their counter moves than by simply running their best plays at you. Still, Barron will have to be disciplined enough to keep himself from being overly aggressive and thus out of position.

HOW DOES THE BARRON SIGNING IMPACT THE DEFENSE?

Last year, in an attempt to add more speed to the second level, the Steelers experimented with a box safety package that utilized either Morgan Burnett or Terrell Edmunds in the weak-side backer role. Barron’s signing alleviates the need to continue this experiment. Rather than use Edmunds here and risk hindering his development as a true safety, or plug in the aging and often injured Burnett, they now have a real box safety with the added benefit of him actually having played inside linebacker.

This doesn’t mean they won’t play Edmunds in the box occasionally, or Burnett if he’s still on the roster come September. Having speed at the second level is in vogue. The Chargers went so far last year as to play with no true backers in the box in their playoff win over Baltimore, using three, four and even five safety packages for most of the game. It served them well as they racked up six sacks and held the Ravens to 11 first downs. That strategy was exploited mercilessly by the Patriots in the Divisional round (shocking!) as the Pats loaded up on heavy personnel sets and rushed for 165 yards en route to 41 points. Still, with the league continuing to trend towards spread sets, speed and tempo, the Steelers may be tempted at times to play with Barron and Edmunds at backer as a counter move. Having Barron, however, means they don’t HAVE to play Edmunds there because they have a better player to fill the role.

This is what excites me. I probably liked what I saw from Edmunds last year more than most. I think he is a play-maker on the back end who hasn’t yet mastered the anticipation and communication aspects of playing cover-2. He is at present more comfortable in the alley as a cover-3 flat/force defender than as a half-field safety.

Butler loves cover-2, however, so it would be nice if Edmunds could master its intricacies. One way to do that is to alleviate the need for him to play in the box so he can get the necessary cover-2 reps and develop a feel for the scheme with teammate Sean Davis. Barron’s presence helps this process. Barron has played linebacker in both a 3-4 and 4-3 scheme. The 4-3 weak side backer plays very much like a box safety does. Even if Barron ends up starting at the Mack, it would be easy to kick him out to play the box safety role while inserting someone like Bostic or Draft Pick X inside with Vince Williams. This would provide the box safety look we desire while keeping Edmunds in a two-high role. Barron’s versatility could help Edmunds’ development, then. This is a win-win for the defense.

Barron’s athleticism will also be valuable as a blitzer. The Steelers have done a pretty good job getting pressure from their inside backers the past couple of seasons. Williams and Bostic combined for seven sacks last season while Williams and Sean Spence produced nine the season before. None of those players have Barron’s explosiveness. Barron was not used much as a blitzer in LA where the Rams relied heavily on their dominant front to create pressure. But here, with our assortment of blitzes, he could be very effective.

In my opinion, Barron is the best of the three free agent signings we’ve made. He is the most versatile; he fills the glaring need of speed at the second level in defending both the run and the pass; he is a sound tackler; he alleviates the need to use Edmunds as a box safety; and he has the potential to be a really good blitzer. Plus, with his toughness and his energy, Barron just feels like a Pittsburgh Steeler football player. A bigger, more athletic Ryan Clark.

That said, he is not the answer to all of our problems on defense. His size can be exploited and he needs to be paired with a stud who can allow Barron to run free to the football. Much like we talk about receivers and corners as #1 and #2 guys, we still need a #1 linebacker. That’s why I am firmly in the camp that says we must make ILB our top priority in the upcoming draft.

With ten draft picks, and the likelihood that several of them will have little to no shot of making the roster, I would absolutely trade up in the first round to grab one of the Devin’s if at all possible. I don’t know how high we will need to go (Cincinnati is likely to take one of them at 1/11) nor what it will cost. But if we can package a fourth round pick to do it, or even our late third if necessary, I would not hesitate to pull the trigger. Barron is a really nice side dish at linebacker. Now let’s go get the main course.